On Nov. 1, a 29-year-old woman named Brittany Maynard plans to end her own life. Diagnosed this year with stage four brain cancer, doctors told her that she would die — quite possibly with a great deal of pain and loss of body and cognitive function — within six months.
After careful thought and discussion with her family, Maynard — along with her husband, mother and stepfather — moved from California to Oregon, where it is legal for terminally ill people of sound mind to seek aid in dying. It wasn’t just a matter of crossing state lines. She had to change her driver’s license and voter registration. She had to find new doctors and a new home. Her husband had to take a leave from his job.
Recognizing that most people don’t have the resources to do what she did, she joined forces with Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit that advocates for end-of-life rights and is trying to get Oregon-style laws passed in other states (only four other states have them).
Maynard’s story first appeared Monday on People magazine’s website. It included a video in which she explains how she made her decision and describes her plan to die in the bed that she shares with her husband, surrounded by family and her best friend, listening to music that she loves. She is shown taking two vials of pills out of a pocketbook and explaining that this is what she will use to end her life. Within a day, the story was such a sensation that Compassion & Choices’ website briefly crashed.
In the 17 years since the Death with Dignity Act became law in Oregon, only 12 patients younger than 35 have obtained and used prescriptions to end their lives, according to state health data. Maynard, in other words, is an outlier. That makes her both an unlikely and ideal spokesperson for the death with dignity movement. It’s not just that she’s young. She embodies particular trappings of youth — a newlywed who hoped to soon become a mother, an adventurous spirit who was healthy for most of her life — that draw people into her story and frame the issue as relevant to everyone of every age.
And by and large, people seem to support her decision and hope they’d have the right to do the same. Naturally, comments on social media contain predictable quantities of proselytizing for vegan cures, quack doctors and miracles from Jesus. But a Gallup poll conducted in May showed 70% of respondents agreeing that doctors should be able to painlessly end a patient’s life when the patient and his or her family want it.
But there’s “when” in the general sense and “when” in the mark-a-day-in-your-calendar sense. Many who support Maynard’s decision still seem unnerved by the idea that she’s set a clock that’s counting down to her final hour. In an interview with University of Miami bioethicist Kenneth Goodman, CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin sounded almost too disturbed by Maynard’s story to ask many useful questions. Even though the video made no suggestion that Maynard carried her life-ending medications around with her, Baldwin referred to “this pill that she walks around with in her wallet” and seemed flabbergasted by the idea that Maynard would have made plans regarding the loved ones she wanted with her and music she wanted playing when she died.
“I can’t imagine any of this is typical, period,” said Baldwin. “But is this more or less how this is done?”
Instead of giving an answer (which, for my money, should have been “Actually, it is wise, beautiful and fundamentally human”) Goodman resorted to criticism. He characterized Maynard’s sharing of her plan as TMI, or “too much information,” and said that even though “we may support one’s right to seek assistance in dying … it’s probably best to keep [the details] private.”
That may have had Baldwin nodding her head, but just about anyone who’s watched a loved one die in pain knows that sometimes there’s no such thing as too much information, only too much fear and the harsh judgment and denial that goes along with it. Maynard may not go through with her plans on Nov. 1 (statistically, most of those who get end-of-life prescriptions don’t use them, though nearly all report feeling peace of mind with the pills in hand). But because she shared her decision, all of it, with the world, her legacy will be a crucial contribution to the conversation about how we live — and end — our lives. It’s a conversation for which TMI can only be a good thing.